Talib Kweli exclusive interview

All art is subjective. But there are some lyrics that, no matter the time nor place, will remain epically true; verses that represent a moment, feeling and passion in a way that demands preservation. Listening to Talib Kweli’s immaculate Blackstar collaboration with Mos Def, for example, it stands tall to this day – 13 years later – as a body of words that’s simply untouchable.

And when you get wrapped in Kweli’s profound lyricism that shook through Hi-Tek’s productions as Reflection Eternal, or his solo work that urgently kept hip-hop moving forward, it’s no wonder that the masters continually hold their hands up in respect, as seen in the trailers for his If Truth Be Told documentary (named after Jay Z’s props in Moment of Clarity: “If skills sold, truth be told/I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli”).

“Success is doing what you love for a living, period. My success is defined by how happy I am when I finish recording a song, and whether or not I’m able to feed my family.”

A Kweli song is power on tap, enlightenment for rent. Being someone that reps the community and equality (as he once famously stated, “My name is in the middle of e-Kweli-ty”), his words propel encouragement to keep your eyes open to the truths of the world. With powerful poetry and provocative wordplay as his weapons, and political outrage as his ammo, for the last 2 decades he’s been firing out the voice of the people.

Sitting down to talk with Kweli a few weeks ago, he wasn’t quite the lyrical mastermind one would expect from such a generous storyteller in rhyme. When prompted about the stories that led to the creation of his new album, Gutter Rainbows (released last month on Javotti Media), he sighed and said, “Different stories come up everyday.” And in explanation of his collaboration choices, he yawned out: “They’re my friends and they wanted to work, and I’m fans of their music.” Silence painfully hung in the air afterwards; his unsubtle way of saying he didn’t want to say more.

Often giving similarly disinterested answers consisting of a mere few words, it was hard to tell if he was bored with the grind of repetitive questions, or if maybe he’s just bored with the industry in general. The endless treadmill of interviews, shows, videos, people coming and going. And money coming and going…or these days, with the music business model crumbling, mainly just going.

The latter sentiment came up in an interview with Billboard last week, in which they called him out on being a sell-out. Kweli’s voice was featured in a Pepsi commercial for their NFL playoffs campaign, with custom lyrics that revolve around the drink. The irony is hard to ignore, even for the most uninvolved followers. But it’s understandably caused a backlash amongst the fans that duly cherished his lyrics over the years; here stands a proudly against-the-grain, fuck-the-man icon doing the most artless scheme of the capitalist world. Something that’s usually reserved for the money chasers in the Top 10 pop charts, not the man of the people.

In response to the haters, Kweli said point blank: “There’s a segment of my fan base that wants to believe that I’m in some basement somewhere with a notebook, with a backpack on, writing rhymes to Eminem instrumentals or something. So the idea that at this point [is that] I’m 35 years old and there’s no music business, and I have grown man responsibilities, so of course I’m going to get paid for my craft. And I’m going to work with companies that are willing to support the lifestyle.”

Interestingly, speaking to us about the notions of success, at one point he mentioned, “Success is doing what you love for a living, period. My success is defined by how happy I am when I finish recording a song, and whether or not I’m able to feed my family.”

As for his feelings about releasing his ninth album (including two with Hi-Tek, one with Mos and one with Madlib), he says rather bored, “I feel good about it. I leave the description for the journalists – I tend not to want to describe my music. Hip-hop is so loquacious, hip-hop describes itself. I want people to buy it. I tried to establish a sound that harkens back to my childhood. It’s up to the listeners to decide whether or not I actually achieved that.”

Gutter Rainbows

With Gutter Rainbows, the album has its moments, but overall it feels like an extension of our interview: just going through the motions, unengaged. He says that the album was inspired by “different types of music: black music, soul music, a lot of music. My output has been that in the past, but this is more of a laser-focus on that; it’s more a biographical album as opposed to talking about what a great rapper I am.” Yet songs like I’m On One almost sound like someone doing an impression of Kweli, with empty quips about his lyrical abilities. Though he does end the song with a provoking question – “This is America, ain’t it? When can I be free?”

“There are a lot of people who just don’t like the thought of a black president, and they found all sorts of excuses to divide the country because of their prejudices.”

Taking that into play, when we ask him how he feels about America these days, particularly the state of affairs with Obama, for once he lights up. The words fly out at a genuine sprint, bringing that Kweli eloquence and outrage that powers his lyrics. He tells, “I think that he’s doing probably the best job he can do but I think he’s having a rough time, and I think his presidency has actually brought out some of the worst aspects of our country. There are a lot of people who just don’t like the thought of a black president, and they found all sorts of excuses to divide the country because of their prejudices. That is an ugly, ugly thing that’s going on because it’s really rearing its ugly head to the point that we can’t even get anything done in Congress – we can’t even get anything done government-wise, because you’ve got other people on the other side of the party who are saying, ‘We’re just not gonna’ work with him.’ And they’re being supported by people.”

With his political stance still holding strong, and the people’s support at his forefront, at least his love for the art is in check. He says, somewhat robotically, but with an ounce of audible passion, “I’m a fan of hip-hop, I’m not just someone who gets caught up on trends. I just love music. There’s nothing I have to do extra to motivate me. I get up in the morning and I do what I love.”

For better or worse, outrage or no outrage, whether he’s a sell-out or someone that’s just trying to feed his family, as he says in Cold Rain: “I’m still standing right here.” And, just like his lyrics of the past, no one can refute that.

Sia Jewels

You may also like...

Load more